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Sephardi Ideas Monthly is a continuing series of essays and interviews from the rich, multi-dimensional world of Sephardi thought that is delivered to your inbox on the second Monday of every month.
For the month of August, Sephardi Ideas Monthly featured Hisham Aidi’s portrait of Jacques Muyal, the Tangier-born, Jewish music enthusiast who grew up to be “one of the most enigmatic and influential figures in the world of jazz.” This month, we continue to explore the intersection between Jews, North Africa, and musical culture with the little-known story of Habiba Messika (1903-1930), the Tunisian Jewish actress and singer, whose skyrocketing career came to a tragic end at the age of twenty-seven. Curiously, her influence on various forms of Arab nationalism increased after her passing. Messika’s extraordinary tale is narrated by a pioneering scholar and gifted writer, Chris Silver, in his 2018 History Today essay, “The Life and Death of North Africa’s First Superstar.”
“The Life and Death of North Africa’s First Superstar”
Silver runs Gharamophone, an exceptional online resource that is dedicated to preserving North Africa’s Jewish musical past, a remarkable history that has largely been forgotten:
At the outset of the last century, just as the phonograph began to be widely used in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, a striking number of indigenous Jewish vocalists and instrumentalists, record label concessionaires, record-store owners, proprietors of cabarets and musical impresarios began to play a prominent role in the production of Arab music… By the outbreak of the First World War – when recording around the world ground to a halt – a half dozen labels operating in the Maghreb boasted deep catalogues of mostly Jewish artists performing Arab music.
What caused the 20th century history of Jewish artists performing Arab music to be overlooked? One of the main reasons was the rise of various forms of nationalism, Arab and Jewish, and the concomitant emergence of singular identities whose frameworks for historical reflection don’t leave room for people like Messika. Which is what makes Habiba Messika’s story so exceptional. It’s not that her Arabness and Jewishness dwelled together harmoniously. Rather, Messika, the Jewess, became a voice for Arab nationalism!
Between 1924-1930, Messika recorded a “staggering” 100 records. Silver writes, “Her voice – crisp, clear, smooth and sensual – captivated her audiences. She became known as the ‘queen of musical ecstasy’.” Now, ‘ecstasy’ is a translation of the Arabic tarab, more a concept than a term and without any equivalent in English. A.J. Racy has written a fantastic English-language book, Making Music in the Arab World: The Culture and Artistry of Tarab, in which he refers to tarab as “the merger between music and emotional transformation.” Messika’s capacity to embody and arouse tarab points to how deeply she had integrated, and been integrated into, Arabic musical culture.
But Messika’s power to arouse her audience wasn’t limited to her sensual musicality:
While she continued to make records with suggestive titles like ‘Ala sirir el nom’ (‘On my bed, spoil me’), she also recorded a number of marches dedicated to King Fuad in Egypt, King Faysal in Iraq and the Bey of Tunis, Muhammad VI, as well as anthems extolling Egypt and Syria.
Then, with her career brilliantly ascending, Habiba Messika’s life ended bizarrely, as she was murdered by an elderly Jewish fan. Her death, an abrupt and unexpected disjuncture, was not, however, the end of the story. Her funeral was “held in Tunis on 23 February 1930. By half past twelve, thousands of people had gathered on the Avenue de Londres, the main artery leading to Tunis’ Jewish quarters.”
Who attended the funeral? Jews, Muslims, and “Tunisian nationalists,” who regarded Messika as “a fellow traveler.” The crowd was so large that, as the French Protectorate’s Director of Public Security noted, “Never before in Tunisia has such a funeral taken place.” Already a cause for concern for the ruling colonial powers, after Messika’s passing:
[H]er records circulated rapidly across North Africa. A French intelligence report described Messika’s shellac discs as having the potential to ‘provoke unrest in the Muslim milieu’.
And so it happened, for instance, three months later in Morocco:
French officials in Morocco began receiving urgent messages from civil controllers across the country. Messika’s records – purchased widely and listened to in communal settings like cafés – were stirring up nationalist feelings.
Messika’s records were stirring up nationalist feelings that, in relatively short order, would limit the kinds of collaborations that made Messika’s entire career possible. How are we to evaluate Messika’s brief but brilliant career?
According to Silver:
Messika’s oeuvre allows us to examine the largely overlooked North African and Middle Eastern soundscape, in which a burgeoning trade in Arabic-language records animated fans, fanned French fears of subversion and were passed from hand to hand for decades.
[N]arrating a history of the greater Middle East through its records challenges many of the most basic assumptions about the region’s history – of the ephemeral quality of music, of an unravelling Jewish-Muslim relationship and even of the exclusivity of emerging nationalist movements.
One can add to Silver’s reflections that Messika appeared during that brief window in time when shared secular spaces appeared across North Africa and the Middle East, shared secular spaces that made room, even in nationalist movements, for hyphenated identities. That said, the exceptional character of Messika’s career also points to the ephemeral quality of these shared secular spaces: why, across North Africa and the Middle East, did they shine so brightly yet burn out so quickly?
Sephardi Ideas Monthly is very pleased to introduce our readers to the wonderful music and thought-provokingly brilliant career of Habiba Messika with Chris Silver’s fascinating and informative essay, “The Life and Death of North Africa's First Superstar.” Next month’s issue of Sephardi Ideas Monthly will feature an original interview with Silver that further explores the fascinating but largely forgotten 20th century history of Jewish musicians in North Africa.
Hear Habiba Messika perform “Anti Souria Biladi” (“Syria, you are my country”) and “Ya man yahounnou,” an ode to Egypt’s King Fuad, recorded for Baidaphon at Berlin, c. 1928. Both songs contain subversive, anti-colonialist messages that made them popular with Arab nationalists. Indeed, Messika's “Anti Souira Biladi” was “among the most sought after records of the era” and its increasing distribution “among Tunisians, Algerians, and Moroccans threw French security services into a frenzy.”
Madam Frecha-Flora Sassoon was born in Bombay after her family emigrated from Iraq to India. Sassoon’s remarkable education included private tutors, “Baghdadi” rabbis, and enrollment at a local Catholic school. By the age of 17 she was a master of Jewish texts and seven languages.
Sassoon married in 1876 and had three children. She took over the family business when her husband passed away in 1894, and she proved to be a generous philanthropist during the plague of 1896. She was also a fierce proponent of women’s rights in a very conservative society. When Sassoon moved to England in 1901 in search of medical care for her daughter, she travelled with ten men so that she could pray with a proper quorum. She also brought along a shohet, or ritual slaughterer, so that she could always have kosher food!
When, in 1910, Sassoon visited Baghdad, she met with local sages, including Hakham Ezra Ruben Dangoor, the Chief Rabbi of Baghdad, and she read the Torah in the synagogue from a scroll that had been donated by the Sassoons.
Madam Frecha-Flora Sassoon left a lasting legacy by locating and collecting manuscripts written by Jews from across the east. Today, the Sassoon Collection is one of the most important manuscript collections in the field of Jewish Studies. After years of toil, Sassoon unsurprisingly developed into an expert in Oriental Jewish manuscripts, Midrash, and Sephardi customs and legal practices. She corresponded with leading rabbis, including the legendary Hakham Rabbi Yosef Haim (the Ben Ish Hai) on halakhic topics.
Sassoon was buried on Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives after she passed away in 1936. In the following passage from Sermon of the Great Rabbanit Madam Frecha Sassoon, published in London in 1930, Sassoon learnedly (and sardonically) asserts her love of Torah and the rights of women to lead learned assemblies:
First, I offer my deep thanks to the Beit HaMidrash L’Darshanim committee for their great honor in electing me as Chairperson of the Annual Meeting. I have been told that since the founding of this institution, it has been unheard of that a woman be honored as Chairperson. This is perhaps because it says “I have found no woman among all these”, or because you recite “Who hath not made me a woman” in your daily prayers. If so, I find it puzzling that you have honored me as Chairperson. Perhaps this is according to what it says in Tractate Kritot, page 6b, that “Once in sixty or seventy years the surplus would reach half the amount” (a reference to the Incense Offering). For, to your mind, men are the basis and principle of the human species, and woman are only the surplus, something extra and inessential. Just as the incense made of the surplus once in sixty or seventy years was legitimate, so you must have said: This Beit Midrash was founded seventy years ago, and was always chaired by men – they are the essence, and now, once in seventy years, the time has come to give the honor to a woman, one of the gender that is considered as surplus and not essential. I harbor no grudge toward you for the honor you have bestowed upon me, far from it; I rejoice that you have, once in seventy years, also honored a woman. Nevertheless, I will have you note that this fact is not a good sign…. Hear me, o teachers and pupils, I hereby reveal to you that you have not entirely erred. I am for the LORD, I love the Torah with all my soul and labor at it, and I lead my children, as well, in the way of Torah.
Mystic Siren: Woman’s Voice in the Balance of Creation by Dr. Vanessa Paloma Duncan-Elbaz
Mystic Siren is about women’s spirituality, Jewish mysticism, and Sephardic musical and cultural traditions. Beautifully illustrated by Gloria Abella Ballen, an award-winning artist recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts, Mystic Siren is a unique artistic and scholarly collaboration between a talented mother and daughter team.
“This little book is an unusual mix of fable and spiritual wisdom that will elevate and enrich the reader, even the parent who is reading to the child.” ~David Suissa
“Vanessa Paloma... is a passionate scholar and performer of songs from the Sephardic Diaspora from North Africa to Turkey...” ~National Public Radio
“Paloma...brings this richness of heritage to her work as an author, performer, teacher and preserver of Ladino songs and music.” ~Here & There, Hadassah Magazine
האשה היהודיה בבגדאד
(Jewish Women in Baghdad) by Nilly Gabbay
Based on documents, articles, and interviews, Jewish Women in Baghdad explores the changes in the social status of Iraqi Jewish women in the first half of the 20th century, with an emphasis on education, social life, activity in the Zionist underground, and family matters. Please note this book is in Hebrew.
SAVE THE DATE 18-27 February 2020! Please click here to reserve your Festival Passes now!
SUBMISSIONS ARE OPEN!
Please click here to send us your Sephardi short or feature-length films!
We are looking for documentaries and narratives on a Sephardic theme or featuring a tie-in. For ideas of the types of films we are interested in, see our archive of recent Festival entries.
Through the poignant medium of film, The NY Sephardic Jewish Film Festival provides viewers with an understanding of the rich mosaic culture of Jews from the Middle East and Greater Sephardic Diaspora. Contemporary voices steeped in history and tradition are celebrated throughout this week-long series of events, including première screenings, intriguing stories, powerful documentaries, director Q&As, and The Pomegranate Awards Ceremony.
The NYSJFFproudly accepts entries via FilmFreeway.com, the world's best online submission platform. FilmFreeway offers free HD online screeners, unlimited video storage, digital press kits, and more.
Travel to Germany with the American Sephardi Federation - ASF Young Leaders and Germany Close Up this spring! This will be Germany Close Up’s first-ever partnership with a Sephardic group – join us and make history! This trip has been tailor-made just for us to connect with our past. We’ll interface with what remains of the Portuguese Jewish community in Hamburg, dive into artifacts of the Turkish Jewish community in Berlin, and explore other Sephardic histories on our journey. We will find out how Germany is relevant to a more diverse Jewish story – including Sephardic Jews!
About Germany Close Up:
Founded in 2007, Germany Close Up introduces young Jewish professionals to modern Germany. The Germany Close Up experience is administered by the Action Reconciliation Service for Peace, the New Synagogue Berlin Centrum Judaicum Foundation, and the German government’s Transatlantic Plan.
Anti-Semitism is once again on the rise, just 75 years after the Holocaust. This irrational hatred of Jews and the world’s only Jewish State harms both innocent victims and perpetrators infected by bigotry. The resurgence of anti-Semitism poses a challenge to all people of conscience: How can we work together to stop anti-Semitism?
This contest is crowd-sourcing new solutions to help end “the world’s oldest hatred.” The contest is sponsored by the CombatAntiSemitism.org Coalition.
People of all ages, backgrounds, and nationalities are encouraged to participate by creatively addressing one of the categories.
Round 1 Deadline: 1 December 2019 Future Rounds Coming Soon
Wednesday, 11 September at 3:00PM (Sold Out) Sunday, 15 September at 8:00PM Opening Night;
Followed by After Party
(Sold Out) Tuesday, 17 September at 8:00PM
Monday, 23 September at 8:00PM
Tuesday, 24 September at 8:00PM Closing Night;
Followed by After Party
Anne, A Musical tells the story of Anne Frank through the lyrics and music of Algerian-French Sephardi composer Jean Pierre-Hadida. David Serero is producing, directing, and staring (as Otto Frank) in this English language première adaptation of the highly successful and well-reviewed original French production, which has been touring for 10 years and was recognized by the Anne Frank Museum at Amsterdam. At the crossroads of musical theater, opera, and oratorio, the twelve artists onstage will bring to life Ms. Frank's world in hiding. This musical piece is educative, emotional, and showcases the universal legacy of one of the most important Jewish figures of the past century.
David Serero (Otto Frank), Kristyn Vario (Anne Frank), SaraKate Coyne (Margot), Lisa Monde (Edith Frank), Wendell Hester (Peter), Jacob Waid (Herman Van Pels), Mackenzie Tank (Augusta Van Pels), Erik Contzius (Fritz Pfeifer), Jordan Flippo (Miep), Alex Schecter (Slammer and U/S), Emily Samuelson (Ensemble and U/S).
The American Sephardi Federation's Sephardi Scholars Series presents:
Center for Jewish History
ASF Sephardi Scholars Center
15 W 16th Street
New York City
They were hundreds, they were a thousand. French citizenship had been confiscated from most through discriminatory Vichy laws. Nevertheless, they fought as “patriots,” neutralizing the Vichy forces and paving the way for American and the British landings on the coasts of Morocco and Algeria in 1942, the first successful Allied landings on Axis soil. This was a major turning point in the Second World War. And, then, inexplicably, they were sent to camps in North Africa. Join us as we explore this little known aspect of World War II history.
Dr. Nicole Cohen-Addad has been building an array of oral archives over since 2002, with various actors and witnesses of this very special time around 8 November 1942. The video interviews are readily available for viewing on the website of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum under her name.
Center for Jewish History
15 West 16th Street
New York City
About the Photographer
In addition to Morocco, Joan Roth traveled to Ethiopia before Operation Moses and again afterwards, Yemen, Bukhara, India, Israel, and photographed extensively in the United States. Her photographs of Jewish women are published, exhibited, and collected by museums and collectors worldwide. Some of Joan’s photographs are published in the book: Jewish Women: A world of Tradition and Change (Jolen Press, 1995).
Gloria Steinem has written the following appreciation: “Joan Roth has looked at the Jewish world as if women mattered, and therefore as if everyone mattered. Across all the boundaries of geography and language, there is not only a common world of belief, but a common world of women. We see into its intimacy through her eyes.” Roth richly depicts the personal and historical dimensions of these women as they preserve and adapt centuries-old traditions amid varied cultural surroundings. The effect, in the words of Rocky Mountain art critic Mary Voltz Chandler, “is like opening a jewelry box filled with so many secrets women know but never told each other.”
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